Jeff’s Follow up on “Customized Learning on the Cheap”

At the ACTEM 2012 MainEducation conference session Dan and I did on “Customized Learning on the Cheap” it was clear to me that an hour for presenting this topic was more of a teaser than a workshop because people had some many questions and Dan and I had so many resources and stories to share.

Dan, in the previous post, has answered what he has been doing with his PACE program at Mount Blue High School.  He is in a much more advanced and comprehensive stage of implementing MCL in his program, and there are lots of good things to be gained from reading his posts about it.

I have dabbled in ways to customize my courses this year.  Mainly allowing students to work at their own pace and work anytime anywhere.  In my classroom, since I teach technology electives, I had to be more flexible with scheduling when I moved out of my English classroom.  Last year I had class periods in which 5 courses were being taught at once.  That had to happen in order to get students into my courses and not have classes sizes of 4.  You can imagine that in this environment lecturing is nearly impossible.  I benefitted in the past from a decent textbook with exercises that students worked their way through but now, with a switch in technology programs, I have had to create my materials almost from scratch.  So here’s a peek at what I’ve been doing and a shot at answering the questions posed from our workshop.

Flipping my classroom-  Although I’m not sure my classroom can be considered 100% the “flipped” model, there are some important elements.  I have video tutorials (I created with the free version of Quicktime Player available on the MLTI laptops) that are uploaded to a content server at the school.  You could use any number of screencasting tools that are generally free (Screencast-o-matic, Jing, Camtasia) there is a list of the one’s I’ve tagged in my Diigo list here.  I then embed those in the class wikispace which serves as the central hub for deadlines, rubrics/handouts and video tutorials and resource links for assignments. I will likely look at moving this hub to iTunes U in the future since I just learned that it is free to have an institutional account where iTunes hosts unlimited files, courses and file sizes in addition to giving instructors tools for managing and publishing the course assignments… that’s right all FREE  for schools. That would eliminate the need for local server space and file limits. Udemy might also provide a model for delivering instruction as well. Check out their free “How to Create a Udemy Course”.  Also, I have found many helpful videos that do a better job teaching the content than I would at Teachertube and Schooltube in addition to Youtube though I have yet to look through other sources like Knowmia,, and Khan Academy.

Flexible Targeted Class Time- My class has deadlines but, in the spirit of Parlay in the Pirates of Carribean Movies “[they are] more what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules”.  It suggests a pace that I feel will be the norm for kids to complete to course with given classtime used.  They may choose to use it outside of the school day and that is fine.  The biggest teaching difference has been that during class students are creating instead of listening (though they can watch the videos during class too).  That frees me up to circulate around the room and help and observe if they are getting it rather than being the sage on the stage at the front, vending information as the sole source.  I recently developed a “check in” tool that is a simple Google form that lets kids identify where they are at and how much help they need from me that period.  Check it out here.  It has changed my classroom for the better, in ONE week. Anyone can do this and if you don’t know how and want my help, I’m offering it.  For real.

Tracking Student Progress and Standards- 90% of my student’s work is handed in digitally.  That’s not just because it saves paper or makes it harder to lose student work (both beneficial though).  It’s because that work goes on line.  The need for students to build a portfolio of their work is I think an essential step to developing a customized learning plan.  It answers the question “who cares?” and “what has that kid been up to?” in one go.  Real audience is essential.  You don’t write for the teacher, you write for the future employer, for the college admissions person, for the community, but most importantly for you.  To represent your best to the world.  Student work in my class is posted on their own wikispaces page on our class wiki.  I can organize them into classes and periods with tagging (see the side column).  There could be group work here, commenting and discussions on each others pages and so on, but I haven’t used those features yet.  I think the tagging feature could be used really well in a wiki or blog to track standards itself.  Imagine a student blog that is running record of work (pics, writing, links, video, student work, reflections) that is organized by tags that are standards.  Click the ELA HS Writing 1.A Common Core tag and see anything the student has done on that blog that meets that standard.  I’m not suggesting that teachers go tag all of these blog posts, that should be the student.  What better way to see if kids understand those standards than labeling the evidence (and why not a written reflection while we are at it).

When it comes to “grading” those standards and how to track them, I, like Dan, have Powerschool in my district and that has been the tool I find seems to be doing the best job with this so far (though it is NOT cheap, nor is it something an individual teacher can do without the school system moving toward it).  I’m not convinced that a home grown low cost or even free solution, much like the Google spreadsheet that Dan suggested, isn’t going to emerge and maybe even surpass the high cost solution.  This is the ONLY area that technology will provide THE answer, whereas technology only plays a supporting role in the rest of MCL.

Time, Training, and Change-  Yes, Yes, and Yes.  Yes, I’ve put in a LOT of time in the summer and weekends to making my classroom like this (and I’m far from out of the woods).  And no, teachers should not be expected to “find time” to make this happen.  If people are serious in a school district to making MCL happen, the staff development and the trust have to be there to provide the time and training for professionals to delve deeply into this and many MANY other models for how this can happen.  Time must be given to make this work right.  The system needs to get out of the way, and support the effort or it cannot be sustained.

Specific Q & A from the session-

Q- DebWhite- “How do we reconcile the students’s needs with the standards? 

A- Frankly, I haven’t seen a set of standards yet that is all encompassing and yet flexible and firm enough to meet the needs of all students and society as a whole.  I think standards handed to teachers by businesses and politicians have a limited shelf life.  I think the answer lies in using those as guideposts and developing, with your school and community, some learning targets that are non-negotiable but versatile enough to be applied in different ways (think “Responsible and involved citizens who understand how and why participation in democracy is key to it’s vitality) and some that are more specific for specific career interests and life goals (think compare differences in base 10 mathematics to those in base 6 and apply those differences with concrete examples).  There need to be multiple ways to learn the skill sets for these standards and multiple ways to show you know them at varying depths.  That work, by the way, is not a one teacher job and somebody (state, feds, etc) should develop a collaborative sharing network to crowdsource these “ways of knowing and showing”.

Q-How does MCL change as students age?

A- I don’t think we really know yet.  The novelty of individualized or online learning will wear off.  Students should gain more independence over time but it seems to me that student choice and voice should be present throughout.  What works for high school won’t necessarily look the same at middle and elementary.

Q-Catie- What tools do you have for customized assessment?

A- I think fellow teachers are the best source for these.  How do you assess _____? What projects do you do?  But something that will get you thinking is this resource. The Differentiator.   Here’s another good example applied to Bloom’s and Willy Wonka from

That’s just a quick sample of the questions. Not all represented here but if you’d like another one answered from the wallwisher please feel free to comment and I’ll get on it.  I felt many questions might be answered above but I don’t want anyone to feel that we didn’t consider their concern or comment.  Engage.


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